Atlas of Forgotten Places
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out now.
These are beautiful books, even in electronic copy – this Atlas of Forgotten Places, and the Atlas of Improbable Places; I’m sure they’re even more lovely in paper. That’s definitely a key thing to note. The photography of each place is generally very good, and evocative of whatever idea is being presented; and the maps are also intriguing. They show where the place is in context – near other towns or within a country or whatever is relevant – and also shows the layout of the particular area. Because with this Atlas in particular, I think, many of the places featured aren’t just individual buildings (although there are plenty of those); they’re also entire towns, or bits of towns. And the maps show what still exists, what’s crumbling, what’s changed over time. They’re really well produced.
Chapters includes Vacant Properties, Unsettled Situations (abandoned towns, largely), Dilapidated Destinations (tourist spots and hotels), Journeys Ended (airports etc), and Obsolete Institutions. Sometimes the categorising is a bit of a stretch, but I’m happy enough to go along with it. It closes with Alcatraz, which I thought both amusing and fitting; there’s a town called Santa Claus, a lighthouse, several hotels, and a Bangkok mall, as well.
I have two quibbles. One is an admittedly minor irritant: the book needed slightly better editing (ashes are interred, not interned, surely). The other is that sometimes most of the entry for a location is a digression – about Napoleon, when the entry is about something on Corsica, or about why an indigenous group where bowler hats when it’s about a railway in Bolivia, or how both cardigans and balaclavas were named for military things (a man and a place) associated with the Crimean War, when it’s a submarine base in Balaklava. If you’re going to feature a place, surely you should spend your two-ish pages talking just about that place? Expanding more on what it was like and what led to its being forgotten? It made me wonder whether Elborough was padding for the sake of making each entry about equal, and pointless words really, really annoy me.
I should also note that the list of places mentioned in the blurb on Goodreads is wrong – three of the places mentioned there do not actually feature in the book that I read (I doublechecked the index and everything). So if you want to read about the abandoned Peter’s Ice Cream Factory, it’s not in this book.
Those quibbles aside, though, I have no trouble recommending this for the armchair traveller, or the lover of quirky facts.
Rosebud, by Paul Cornell
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in April 2022.
Well that was… a ride.
Cornell’s novella follows in a trend from the last few years of exploring issues of humanity through the lens of AIs. I mean, I know that authors have pretty much always been exploring what it means to be human through the medium of the robot, right back to Metropolis; but I feel like it’s somehow become more pointed, or nuanced, or something, in the last 5 or so years. Maybe I’m just being shortsighted; maybe I can blame Murderbot for this perception.
Anyway, Rosebud is a spacecraft orbiting Saturn – a spacecraft about 1mm in diameter, crewed by five AIs of varying (and really very varying) provenance. They encounter an anomaly, and they investigate. In doing so, they are confronted both by their own identities, as memories are brought to the fore, and by the consequences of the anomaly – what it’s doing to them and what it might mean for the humans back on Earth. To investigate, the AIs are forced to be embodied – and as is generally the case, bodies have consequences.
I can’t quite describe the style this is written in. It’s present tense; it’s third person, but the POV favours one character, Haunt, in particular. It also feels more spoken, I think, than written; perhaps formalised internal monologue? For instance: “That’s how this is supposed to do. Doing it on their own is above their pay grades. Not that they’re paid. This is big people stuff” (p14). It’s certainly very readable – I powered through it in a sitting, despite some of their narrative weirdness that occurs thanks to the anomaly. There’s some amusing banter between the five characters – they are very different, with wildly different expectations and desires and perspectives, and they’re not always interested in cooperating with each other.
If you’re a fan of Paul Cornell, this will probably work very well for you. It’s not my favourite Cornell (that would be the Lychford series), but I’m certainly glad I got a chance to read it.
Public Faces, Secret Lives
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in May 2022.
I have been known to joke that historical women were invented in the 1960s – before that, only Cleopatra, the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I existed (obviously none outside of the European context). More recently I have added that queer people were invented in the 21st century.
I was joking, but … only because there’s an element of truth. Straight white men rule history, amiright?
This book, then, is a massively important addition to the history of the fight for suffrage.
I should point out that although I have a fairly substantial library of suffrage books, they are all either Australian or British. My knowledge of the American experience is limited to the film Iron Angels, and the magnificent “Bad Romance” spoof video clip. I do not, therefore, know a lot about the private lives of the main characters like Susan B. Anthony, who aren’t covered here in any detail because it’s been done elsewhere. It’s interesting therefore to get the focus on women who were, apparently, lesser lights – or who have become such as the history of the period has been presented.
I’m also not an expert on queer history, so I don’t know whether Rouse’s particular definition is standard or expansive. Here, queer is outlined as “individuals who transgressed normative notions of gender and sexuality… suffragists who were not strictly heterosexual or cisgender” (p2). There’s a nice point about how language changes and that words we might use to describe relationships today, for instance, may not have been available to or appropriate for people in the past.
The chapters follow general themes, or categories, allowing Rouse to explore different ways in which queerness was expressed – and fought against, in some instances. For example, in the chapter “Mannish Women and Feminine Men”, she examines how some suffragists fought against the derisive stereotype of ‘mannish women’ by insisting that suffragists perform femininity to a signifiant degree – to the detriment of gender non-conforming individuals and those women who advocated less restrictive dress. Other chapters include “Queering Domesticity” and “Queering Family” – so many of these women ended up setting up house together, and whether they were in physically romantic relationships can often not be conclusively determined, but they still spent their lives together! There’s also “Queering Transatlantic Alliances”, “Queering Space” and “Queering Death”, so it covers the entire gamut of suffragist lives.
There’s a really nice intersectionalism at work here, too, with commentary on how “queer white suffragists… helped maintain a system of white supremacy by policing access to the vote” (p63), for example. There are definitely black and First Nations people mentioned in the book, but I suspect one problem of not being familiar with the American history here is that I didn’t automatically recognise the name of any of the suffragists – let alone recognise whether they were white or not. Still, Rouse did point it out, and made note of the times when white suffragists, for instance, either tried to block black women from marching in demonstrations or told them to go to the back of the line. There’s mention, too, of class – something that’s often lacking in standard stories of the British fight for suffrage, if it focuses on Emmeline and Charitable Pankhurst and forgets Sylvia.
I’m really glad this book exists. It’s a really great look at the American fight for women’s suffrage in general (as far as I can tell), as well as presenting a dimension that is much-needed across all history.
Green with Milk and Sugar
I read this courtesy of NetGalley.
This is one of my favourite types of history books.
1. It’s about a fairly niche topic – the drinking of Japanese tea in America – which is shown to have connections with all sorts of issues and events across many decades. Trade connections! Racism and how attitudes towards different ethnicities develop and are deliberately cultivated! What happens to the samurai class when they’re moved out of Japanese society! Civil war and foreign war! Marketing and world expos and food regulation. It’s all here, and it’s woven in and through the overall topic beautifully.
2. There’s intriguing and what seem like weird facts. Like the idea of a punch made from ‘very strong tea’, plus a 1.25 pounds of sugar, a pint of cream AND THEN a bottle of either claret or champagne. I feel ill even thinking about it. Also, the idea that apparently people used to add Prussian blue to green tea, to give it a stronger colour??
3. There’s a personal connection to the author, and it’s neither gratuitous (I really like tea!) nor tenuous (my next door neighbour’s grandfather lived in Taiwan!) nor overly emphasised. Instead, the Hellyer family had been involved in importing “Japan tea” to America for many years, back when that was what it was called and when – as the subtitle suggests – “Japan filled America’s tea cups”. When appropriate, the Hellyer family experience is used to illuminate particular aspects of the story – Europeans as merchants in Japan, the shipping to America, and so on.
4. It’s just really nicely written. Hellyer has clearly done a lot of research, and has been very thoughtful in the way he’s put together the material. The overall story is easy to follow – but there’s no sense of a steady march towards a definite end. I mean, in one sense there is, because the reality is that American tastes in tea did change (not least away from tea). But it’s not all ‘oh woe everything was always leading to downfall’ – instead, it follows the changes in fashion and expectations and international relations and shows how those things interrelate with the drinking of, and importing/exporting of, tea.
I love history books about food that illuminate a seemingly mundane part of ordinary life and show just how complicated such things really are.